Death, taxes, and the New England Patriots being linked to players from the University of Alabama. While wide receivers Jameson Williams, John Metchie and Slade Bolden are most frequently mentioned, the most realistic target might be somebody else entirely: linebacker Christian Harris.
On the surface, the Patriots going after Harris makes all the sense in the world. They need to upgrade their linebacker room, after all, and he offers plenty of upside to give the group a much-needed boost in 2022 and beyond. Furthermore, he has plenty of traits that the team is placing a high value at.
So, let’s take a look at him.
Name: Christian Harris
Position: Off-the-ball linebacker
School: Alabama (Junior)
Opening day age: 21
2021 season: 15 games; 79 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss; 5.5 sacks; 2 forced fumbles
Size: 6004, 226 lbs, 32 1/8 arm, 76 3/4 wingspan, 9 5/8 hand
Expected round: 2nd
Strengths: Harris is built like a modern day linebacker, and has the sideline-to-sideline range to make an impact in the passing game. A former high school wide receiver and defensive back, his lateral mobility and range are impressive; he fluidly opens and closes his hips to change direction while also possessing good short-area burst and closing speed to hang with opposing tight ends and running backs in coverage.
Explosive and powerful LB that can take on blocks and get after the passer. True do-it-all LB that fits exactly what the Patriots are looking for to improve their LB’s speed and athleticism. pic.twitter.com/nlFxj3ktxF— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 8, 2022
His athletic skillset also makes him a factor when attacking downhill either as a pass rusher or versus the run. Harris violently flies downhill, but he also has the necessary wiggle to elude blockers and get to his target. He is a true do-it-all defender, who has the upside to become a three-down linebacker at the next level and align all over the front seven.
His coverage skills are what sets him apart at the position but don’t sleep on his ability to play the run. Physical, downhill LB that can take on blocks and make plays against the run. Ideal fit for this #Patriots defense. pic.twitter.com/20QL9lWomn— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 8, 2022
Harris also has plenty of experience, and has been praised for his intelligence and coachability. Despite his position change upon arriving in Tuscaloosa, he went on to start 12 of 13 games as a true freshman; over the next two seasons he added 28 more starts to his résumé.
Weaknesses: While it at least appears the Patriots are open to changing their approach to linebacker acquisition and adapting to recent trends at the position, only time will tell how committed they truly are. Judged against the historical precedent the team has had, however, Harris is undersized at 6-foot-0, 226 pounds.
His size is what it is, but there are other weaknesses to his game as well. Harris, for example, has struggled with consistency during his three years with the Crimson Tide. His tackling is up and down, and he has allowed too many players to escape his grasp; in 2021, Harris missed almost 19 percent of his tackle attempts — a number that is not anywhere good enough against NFL competition. He also is on/off at applying pass rush moves.
He also trusts his athleticism and instincts too much at times, opening up lanes as a result. Harris needs to learn to read his keys more consistently rather than just reacting to what he believes is happening. Furthermore, his development plateaued a bit during his college career: he was a freshman starter and appeared destined to become the next star linebacker coming through the program; he never really reached that level consistently.
What would be his role? Harris has the skillset to play multiple positions, but he would serve primarily as an off-the-ball Mike linebacker at the next level. Playing in the middle of the defense would allow him to use his range as a second-level defender versus both the run and especially the pass. His ceiling is that of a three-down linebacker.
Does he have positional versatility? Versatility is one of Harris’ most appealing attributes. The 21-year-old already played a somewhat flexible role in Alabama’s pro-style defense: the majority of his snaps came off the ball but he was also moved onto the line of scrimmage on occasion. The expectation is that his growth into a jack of all trades will continue at the next level.
Who is his competition? Harris would be a lock to make the roster based on his draft status, but his playing time would depend on his growth as a tackler relative to the performances by other linebackers of his type currently under contract. Those players are fellow Alabama product Mack Wilson as well as Raekwon McMillan and Cameron McGrone.
Why the Patriots? New England needs to get more speed and playmaking ability onto the field, and Harris offers both while still being at a relatively early stage in his development. He is a modern linebacker and possesses serious starter-level upside, and would give the Patriots a player to build around for the future.
Why not the Patriots? New England made some recent investments in the position, including adding the aforementioned Wilson, McMillan and McGrone; the club also continues to stockpile versatile safeties capable of playing in the box. Harris’ upside significant but one has to wonder whether the team truly sees a need given the players it already has on its roster. If those are trusted to play on a high level, there is no need to draft Harris.
Verdict: The Patriots need to improve their defense at all three levels, and Harris would allow them to add long-term potential at the cost of a Day 2 selection. He makes sense as an addition to the team’s defense given his skillset and background, but a lot depends on how the team views its current linebacker and safety group: New England not drafting Harris (or a similar player) could be a seen as a good sign for the players under contract at the moment.